SYDNEY, Australia — A leaked document has revealed that China and the Solomon Islands are close to signing a security deal that could open the door for Chinese troops and naval warships pouring into a Pacific country that played a vital role during the Second World War.
The agreement, hitherto kept secret, was shared online Thursday night by opponents of the deal and verified as legitimate by the Australian government. Though it has been flagged as a draft and citing the need for “social order” as a justification for sending Chinese troops, it has raised alarms across the Pacific, where concerns over China’s intentions have been mounting for years.
“This is highly problematic for the United States and a real cause of concern for our allies and partners,” Charles Edel, the inaugural Australian chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Friday.
“The establishment of a base in the Solomon Islands by a strategic adversary would significantly deteriorate the security of Australia and New Zealand, increase the potential for local corruption and increase the chances of resource exploitation.”
It’s not clear which party initiated the deal, but if signed, the deal would give Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare the ability to call on China to protect his own government, while leaving China a base of operations. between the United States and Australia that could be used to block shipping traffic across the South Pacific.
Five months ago, protesters dissatisfied with Beijing’s secret influence attacked the prime minister’s home, set fire to businesses in the Chinese capital, Chinatown, and killed three people. The worst-case scenario that some residents of the Solomon Islands are now envisioning would be a collapse of democracy before or during next year’s elections, with more unrest and the threat of China moving in to maintain the current status quo.
The leaked document states that “The Solomon Islands, at its own discretion, may request China to send police, armed police, military and other law enforcement and military forces to the Solomon Islands to help maintain social order and protect life and owned by people. †
It allows China to “provide assistance with other tasks” and requires secrecy, noting that “Neither side will disclose the cooperation information to any third party.”
Matthew Wale, the leader of the opposition party in the Solomon Islands parliament, said he feared the “very general, overarching, vague” agreement could be used for anything.
“The crux is that it’s all about the prime minister’s political survival,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the national security of the Solomon Islands.”
For Beijing, the deal could offer its own potential reward. “China may, at its own discretion and with the consent of the Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistical supplies to, and make a stopover and transfer in the Solomon Islands,” the draft reads.
It also states that the Solomons will provide “all necessary facilities”.
The Chinese embassy in the Solomon Islands did not immediately respond to an email asking for comment.
Australia, traditionally the island’s main security partner and also sending police officers at the government’s request to quell the unrest in November, was quick to respond to the leaked document.
“We would be concerned about any actions that destabilize the security of our region,” the Australian Foreign Office said in a statement. “Members of the Pacific family are best placed to respond to situations affecting regional security in the Pacific.”
Despite such confirmations, Australia has been losing influence over the Solomon Islands for years. The larger country has a history of condescending to the region, downplaying its concerns about climate change and often describing it as its own “backyard.”
Mr Sogavare has made no secret of his desire to bring China closer. In 2019, shortly after his election, he announced that the island would end its 36-year diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, the self-governing island China claims as its own, to establish official ties with Beijing. He argued that Beijing would provide the infrastructure and support the country needed.
Sogavare’s government quickly signed agreements that gave Chinese companies the right to build roads and bridges and reopen one of the country’s gold mines. A Chinese company even tried to lease the entire island of Tulagi.
That deal was eventually deemed illegal, after critics rose in anger. Residents of Tulagi and Malaita, an island province where local leaders strongly oppose China, have said ongoing bribes are paid by Beijing agents with bags of cash and bribes for senior leaders, often made during fully paid trips to China.
The violent protests in November in the Solomon Islands reflected those frustrations. They broke out on the island of Guadalcanal, in the capital Honiara, where American troops waged a relentless battle against the Japanese from 1942 onwards. And the clashes have been fueled by anger over allegations of China-fueled corruption and an alleged unequal distribution of resources that has left Malaita less developed despite the country’s largest population.
Malaita Prime Minister Daniel Suidani – who has barred Chinese companies from Malaita while accepting US aid – said the anger stemmed from “the leadership of the national government”.
“They are provoking people to do something that is not right,” he said in November.
Mr Wale, the opposition leader, said he has encouraged the Prime Minister to negotiate with Malaita, but with little success.
“The political discourse on these matters is nonexistent,” he said, adding that the proposed agreement with China would make the relationship more volatile.
The latest on China: important things to know
Marriages and divorces. Faced with a rapidly rising divorce rate, China enacted a rule that forces married couples to undergo a 30-day cooling-off period before officially breaking up. The measure appears to have been effective in reducing divorce, but is unlikely to help with a demographic crisis fueled by a declining number of marriages.
Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at the Center for Defense and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand, said the recent unrest and ongoing insecurity indicated a high level of government stress over the pandemic, the economy and “long-standing concerns on the captivity of the state and political elites by foreign interests.”
“Some of the biggest implications here are how strategic competition distorts local government,” said Dr. powles.
US officials are also increasingly concerned. In interviews over the past few years, they have often cited the Solomons as a serious example of China’s approach to the Pacific, cultivating decision-makers to open the door for Chinese businesses, migration, and access to strategic resources and locations—most likely, the Americans. believe, for civilian and military use, at sea and for satellite communications.
Many Pacific islands, including Kiribati and Fiji, have seen a surge in Chinese diplomats, building deals and Chinese migration over the past five years. Disputes and tensions have escalated over Beijing’s role in a region that has often been either ignored or seen as little more than dots on the map for major powers to play with.
Last month, during a visit to Fiji that focused heavily on competition with China, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced that the United States would soon open an embassy in the Solomon Islands, having closed one in the 1990s. It will be many months before it is operational, and US officials initially did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
“They can certainly do more and faster,” said Mr Wale, the Solomons opposition leader. “They just seem to drag their feet.”
Edward Wonga contributed reporting from Washington.